|Rembrandt study of an elephant, British Museum|
This post comes from a reply I wrote this evening to a question from one of my students who asked in response to my previous comment about his work what is line quality. I thought I would post it since this is probably one of the most common questions, and a valid one too. I've posted a drawing by Rembrandt and will explain the reason why at the end.
Here goes...my thoughts on what is line quality:
Line quality is something that comes when the line is connected not to the mind but to the heart. I know that may sound wacky but it’s not something you can think too much about when you are drawing. There are no rules except not to think it too much.
Line has to respond to how you feel about what you are drawing. Line is descriptive but also expressive. You can draw a circle or you can express something about the circle. One is info, the other is art. I’m sure you are cringing as you read this thinking WTF?
For a moment I’m going to ask you to think: what are the qualities of line. Line is just a series of either tightly or loosely connected dots. It can delineate a division of space: this and that side of line. Or it can enclose a space and define a shape. It can, like sound, grab your attention with its intensity or be as soft and almost ephemeral as a soft sound. Think of music. Music has direction, rhythm and depth. Line too. It’s very abstract…it doesn’t exist in reality but is incredibly powerful in art. It takes the eye in a direction; can set a speed of observation: make you move or stop or hesitate; can set up a rhythm of observation, and even imply depth where there is none…ie paper.
So where and when does one use all these qualities? Simple answer….when you feel they are needed. I am sure at this stage you are, as we all did when starting to really draw and improve our skills, desperately trying to get it right: make it look like a figure. It’s a valid and important goal: connecting the eye to the hand.
But while you are doing that don’t leave your heart out of it. Learn not only to depict, but to express. One is diagram, the other is art. Diagrams inform…Art communicates feeling, thought, ideas. Line does it very well.
Give it a try. It takes a lot of messes to get it right. I think it was the creator of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner who said you have to get your 500 bad drawings out of the way. How far are you?
So that was my email to him this evening. And now, why Rembrandt's elephant? I came across it the other evening while looking once again at Rembrandt's amazing sketches. True cafe, or street drawing: full of life, expression, observation...a direct connection between the eye and hand by way of the heart.
This elephant study doesn't find itself into any of his paintings. It was done only out of interest and probably empathy. Each line does more than depict something about the elephant. Each line expressed what Rembrandt felt about what was before him. The lines vary in length, thickness and intensity in response to a bent back, a curled trunk, a heavy leg or a thinking eye. We not only see what an elephant looks like, we feel what an elephant feels and the connection between the artist and the subject throughout. Behind the elephant a family (perhaps) is mentioned with a few flowing lines. We know what is important. And it's only line...a series of variously connected dots that do all this.
That is the magic of line. That is what makes it so wonderful and often frustrating to pursue.